In Defense of the Primary System

Both Sierra Rayne and Daren Jonescu have, in recent days, criticized the GOP primary process in these pages.  While in disagreement on what candidate to support and the nature of a "fair" process, neither shows any love for the virtues of the system as it exists.

Of the three troublesome issues with Rayne's position, Jonescu points out one: if Rayne's advice were taken, it would rebound against Rayne's apparent favored candidate.  A "transparent and simple mathematical model" would involve removing a fair number of delegates bound to Donald Trump, replacing them with Cruz delegates by virtue of the fact that Trump has been awarded more bound delegates than he has won based on his share of the popular vote.

The second issue is that in his piece, Rayne substitutes polls for actual voting.  So after all the rending of garments and wearing of ashes over the disenfranchised, it appears we shouldn't bother with primaries, either.  Rayne's guy has already "won"; CBS has told us so.

Now, it's all well and good to expect your team to win if it has a lead at the start of the final lap, but last time I checked, the race is decided by who crosses the finish line first.

Finally, Rayne seems not to recognize the difference between a plurality and a majority. 

Jonescu's argument doesn't fare much better.

To start off with, he doesn't seem to understand why only two parties can be competitive in a U.S. election.  In a parliamentary democracy, multiple parties can represent pure factions that run against each other during the election and then form an alliance afterward, with power shared based on the election results.  Deals are made with one or more parties in an attempt to gain a majority and, with it, control of government.  This forces the factions that exist to ultimately come together to form the inevitable binary condition of one alliance in government and the other in opposition. 

But we have a unitary executive.  Our factions need to battle it out before the election and then forge an alliance greater than the opponents' before election day or be shut out.  That is why we have a "two-party system," and that is why we have the lengthy, complex, and difficult nomination process that is unfolding as I write.  In order to pick the candidate who represents the best compromise among the factions that make up a party and who also demonstrates the best chance of winning the general election, we have a lengthy, grueling process, where each of the different types of contests, as well as their sequences, plays a role.

Caucus states require a candidate to show organizational skill and the ability to attract depth of support.  It's not easy to get someone to trudge through the snow, then sit in a room for hours while not budging as his neighbors try to talk him into switching sides.  Placing an early caucus in a small state like Iowa minimizes the otherwise overbearing influence of early money.  It allows candidates with small pockets and little name recognition a chance to garner momentum and support for later contests though the application of talent and effort.

If caucus states show depth, primary states demonstrate the width of a candidate’s support.  Again, an early primary in a small state like New Hampshire can force a candidate to practice retail-level politics.  How persuasive is he?  Can she get a message across that gains traction?

Eliminate these types and this sequence of contests for a one-day national primary, and the only way to win will be with establishment money and establishment infrastructure. 

As it is, stringing out contests may favor this faction or that, but can the candidate deliver the faction he says he can?  Winner-take-all contests are in place to cull the field, giving a compromise candidate (who by definition is the second choice of many) a shot on the last lap by narrowing the competition before all the delegates are selected.  Super Tuesday is the first chance to see if the candidate can do everything at once: money, organization, message, smarts.  It's as close to a nationwide test of ability to win as you can see before the general election.  And to the Trump supporters out there, let's be clear: winning on a Super Tuesday means you win a majority, not a plurality, of votes, not states.

This system is a race, and like most car races, it starts with a form of knock-out qualifying designed to get the slower cars out of the way so the leaders can go head to head.   I'm trying to argue that this has value and normally works OK; even if my faction is not exactly thrilled with a McCain or Romney win, it's one I could live with if that candidate crosses the finish line first.  And I'm old enough to know that Reagan was hardly the first choice of a lot of other factions in the party back in the day.  So sometimes I'm left with my second choice.  Whose fault is that if not mine for not burning up some shoe leather for my favorite? 

Of course, if the system is so good, why is it breaking down so spectacularly now?  Why are we going into a "third term" election, where the president's party is seen as having put the country on the wrong track, with a Democratic candidate who is the single worst candidate in the last century, if not all time?  Why does my party have to break down now, when any candidate we've put up in my lifetime would coast to a win?

Why God has set in motion the conditions that are turning the Republican Party into a modern-day version of Job's trials is well beyond my ability to fathom. 

I do, however, have a decent theory as to the mechanics of it all, and I fear that it does not bode well for whichever faction, or even party, is yours.  Trump is the first of what I expect to be many, many celebrity candidates.

Being a celebrity looks to be an enormous advantage for a candidate.  Many of the early tests a candidate has to endure – the gathering of recognition, organization, and support – can be skipped entirely by a celebrity.  With 100% name recognition and the ability to command free media far beyond that of a politician, Trump can fly in, give a speech, and fly out and still expect a shot at winning.  If he wins, I'll have to admit that the candidate of the future really doesn't need a ground game – just a TV show, or perhaps a sex tape.

In this new world, even the motivation for running is becoming increasingly skewed.  You used to run to win, but now candidates with no intent to win may enter the contest, or stay far past their expiration dates, just to pump up their post-election book sales.  I fear that Trump himself may not really want to win so much as buff his flagging brand (mission accomplished there, no doubt).  And the more successful Trump is, the more celebrities will follow.

So yes, let us think about rational changes.  Just don't forget that nothing can save us from ourselves.

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